Category Archives: Teaching

Presentation Mode

Presentation Mode
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2016-12-07

by Richard White

It’s Computer Science Education Week, and for the fourth year in a row I’ve conducted presentations at our Lower and Middle Schools for an Hour of Code with 5th and 7th graders.

I’ve got a bit more on my plate than usual this year, so I tried to minimize time spent emailing/calling/coordinating with various administrators, tech coordinators, and teachers. I work with a great group of people who helped make some of that happen—our Middle School Tech Coordinator was instrumental in navigating some of that, and my Upper School director committed early to giving me time off from my classes to go conduct those sessions. Also, our Lower School Technology Integration Specialist took on some of the heavy lifting for the first time this year, identifying activities that might be well-suited for the 5th graders.

I’d been a little smart about things too: the Hour of Code webpages that I’d set up previously were still live, and a handy reference for those who wishe it. The presentation materials that I’ve developed over the years were pretty much ready to go as well, with some minor modification and editing. I’ve been switching from PowerPoint to LibreOffice, and my software on the laptop was good to go.

Now, how about that hardware?

Every presenter has their list of hardware that they need to be sure to bring along to a presentation, particularly if you’re going to be away from your home base for the day/week. What to bring with?

  • Laptop
  • Camera/cellphone for documenting event
  • Charger and charger adapter
  • Logitech wireless presenter (R400)
  • Lightning port-to-HDMI cable (spare)
  • Lightning port-to-VGA dongle (backup)
  • USB key with presentation materials (backup)

I’d been to one of the rooms I would be presenting in, and knew that it was probably already stocked with the various power supplies and cables that I’d need, but you never know. Most of the items on that list there are simply backups or replacements for items that I expect will already be there.

img_9764

I got to the room, got things set up, checked out the projector to make sure it was working, double-checked the video that I’d be running in the presentation for sound… I was good to go!

I went to grab a marker to write my name on the whiteboard… no markers? Oh, there’s one. An old low-odor marker for which someone has left the cap off. I tried to write my name, and it left a half-visible mark on the board. I went to erase it and… no eraser.

Who has whiteboards with no working pens or erasers?

I scrambled around a bit and managed to scare some up just in time for the presentation.

It just goes to show you…

Looks like I have a couple of additional items for my hardware list. :)

Teaching CS: Am I doing it right?

Teaching CS: Am I doing it right?
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by Richard White

2016-11-10

I’ve been teaching Computer Science in one way or another for a decent part of my teaching career, from courses using BASIC and Pascal on standalone PCs (pre-Internet!) back in the 80s to courses using Python and Java currently. I’d like to think I mostly know what I’m doing by this point.

It’s interesting to note, however, that there is a wide variation on how teachers work with students in a computer science classroom. From the AP Computer Science teaching community, I’ve heard of teachers who:

* have their students use Linux workstations exclusively
* have their students learn Java exclusively through graphics programming (Processing language)
* have their student use web-based Java compilers/interpreters
* have their students learn how to interact with a server
* have their students turn in all assignments on paper only
* have their students retrieve lessons and submit assignments using GitHub
* teach Java by having their student write mobile apps

It’s a stunning variety of strategies given that we’re all teaching the exact same course with the exact same curriculum.

And maybe that’s a strength of computer science, that there are lots of ways to make it happen. Whether you use Linux or OS X or Windows, whether you program using a terminal or an IDE, whether your programs interfaces are text-based or graphical… we’re all teaching computer science.

If there’s a downside to this variety, it’s that we may be tempted to feel that some of the other strategies–old ones that we haven’t had time to consider, or new ones that have just been recommended to us–might be better (more interesting? more effective? more appealing to students?) than what we’re currently doing. And so we feel compelled to give these new strategies some consideration.

In the last few years there has been an explosion of interest in Coding (which is not quite the same thing as Computer Science, but we’ll take what we can get, eh?). Hadi Partovi’s Hour of Code, MIT’s block-based Scratch language, the Raspberry Pi, the Arduino, the College Board’s new AP Computer Science Principles curriculum… and these are just the most popular of the recent technology and CS-based innovations that might merit some consideration by me, with an eye toward possibly incorporating some of them into my teaching toolbox.

How much should I stay the course and stick with what I think works best? How much of my limited professional time should I invest in consider these other possibilities?

More than teachers in any other subject area, we teachers of Computer Science need to wrestle with these questions. It’s a de facto part of our job description.

What is your specialty in teaching CS/technology? What topics do you add to your courses, because those topics work, or they’re part of your pre-existing skill set? Do you feel pressure to always be looking at The Next Big Thing?

For related reading: http://blog.acthompson.net/2016/11/too-many-cs-teaching-resources.html

The Poor Person’s Guide to Differentiated Instruction

The Poor Person’s Guide to Differentiated Instruction
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by Richard White

2016-10-28

I’m a classroom teacher, and I’m a busy man.

I prep lessons, I develop and coordinate assignments for my students, and post homework assignments on the school website. I collect work, set up labs, write, administer, and grade tests. I develop caring relationships with my students.

It’s the best job in the world… and I come home *exhausted* most days.

One of the many challenges we teachers face is providing learning opportunities that are appropriate for the level of our students. In classes with an especially wide range of abilities, these can become problematic, logistically speaking.

In my Computer Science classes I typically have at least three ability levels in the same class:

1. students who have already had some experience with programming, possibly in a different language, and who are able to accomplish most assignments very quickly.
2. students who may be new to programming, but who are making reasonable progress. They quickly learn that programming requires attention to detail, and they typically pick up patterns—syntactical, logistical, procedural—after one or two exposures.
3. students who struggle to recognize the patterns, or who find themselves more easily frustrated by the puzzles posed by programming assignments.

I’ve experimented with a few different strategies over the years. Here are three that I’ve tried that have met with some success.

1. Below the Fold Progression
In this type of differentiation, students are provided with a text file (usually online) that contains a statement of the problem at the very top of the file. The file itself is actually a working copy of the problem, with the initial problem statement written as a multi-line comment near the beginning of the file. Much farther down on the page, where students can’t easily see it without scrolling, is another multi-line comment containing a pseudocode analysis of the problem. And finally, much farther down again, is the solution code itself. Students who want to work out the program without any hints are free to do so, while students who need a bit of help from the pseudocode can look at that as needed. Students who need much more support may find themselves looking at the actual program for assistance, and that’s okay if that’s where they are in their own learning process.

Example: ch06ex03.py (Right-click or Ctrl-click to download)

2. Page 2 Solution
In this strategy, something similar to the “Below the Fold” method is used, but now, the problem statement and its solution are printed on paper to be distributed to the students. The front side of the paper has the problem statement, and a complete working version of the code is on the back side (page 2) of the same piece of paper. This has the advantage of giving the students a concrete document to scribble on, and giving the teacher some ability to see which side of the paper students are looking at as they work on the program.

Example: four_functions.py (PDF format, Right-click or Ctrl-click to download)

3. Progressive Lecture
The final strategy is much more interactive. Students are assigned a problem in class and instructed to begin developing a solution. At the front of the room, after some reasonable amount of time has passed, the teacher begins writing out a rough outline of the program, perhaps with comments highlighting significant sections of code. Students who have developed their own solutions to the program will continue working on their own, while those who may be struggling to organize a solution will get some hints from what is written on the board.After a few more minutes have passed, the instructor may continue fleshing out the solution to the problem using the framework already developed. Students who still aren’t sure about some aspects of the program are free to ask questions as actual code is presented on the board.

Example: Differentiated Instruction (YouTube video)

Strategy 3 requires the most from me in the classroom. I’m moving around the room, actively monitoring students’ progress, and trying to determine the *decisive moment* (thank you, Henri Cartier-Bresson) when I should begin reaching out to assist students who need some additional guidance. Strategies 1 and 2 have the benefit of being delivered by computer or paper, with assistance immediately available to students when they decided they want to take advantage of it. The downside of those two strategies, of course, is that students do have access to solutions, and may be tempted to avail themselves of those materials before they’ve had a chance to wrestle with the material… and it’s in that wrestling that they really get to learn things.

As I say, I’ve used all three of these strategies on one occasion or another, and they work pretty well in Computer Science courses. I’ve adapted similar strategies to some of the science courses I teach.

As a teacher, do you use any of these strategies, or something similar? How do you reach out to the students of varying ability levels in your classroom?

The Lone Wolf… Rides Alone

The Lone Wolf… Rides Alone

Richard White, 2016-10-15

Computer Science teachers at the 9-12 grade level are a lonely group of individuals in many cases. Some of us have colleagues nearby with whom we can converse with on a regular basis–there might even be a computer science program or department at our school–but many of us work alone, and represent the sole face of *Computer Science instructor* at our schools.

Some people enjoy the freedom that comes with being the “lone wolf” of the school’s Computer Science program. You have a bit more control of the curriculum you teach, perhaps, and conflict resolution with peers goes a whole lot easier when you don’t *have* any peers.

But there are challenges as well. Many of us are responsible for wearing multiple hats simultaneously, managing hardware, software, and curriculum, for example. Or we teach separate classes in widely varying topics: computer science, networking, web design, and mobile application development. In addition to our courses, we mentor robotics teams, we advise Girls Who Code clubs, and we organize “Hour of Code” events for the larger community. We promote Computer Science as a subject internally to our peers and administrators, and act as *de facto* Public Relations representatives to the wider community.

It’s no wonder we get a little tired sometimes.

With an increased interest in computer science, computer principles, and computer programming, there’s a call for more computer science teachers nationwide.

For me, it can’t happen to soon. As much as I’ve enjoyed developing and teaching computer science classes at my school, I could use a little company.

What’s your preference? Do you enjoy working alone, or is the idea of bringing in someone else to share ideas and share the labor appeal to you?

My Vision

MY VISION

by Richard White

2016-03-24

You almost certainly heard that a couple of months ago, President Obama called for “Computer Science for All” in a program of the same name. From the Fact Sheet for that initiative:

Providing access to CS is a critical step for ensuring that our nation remains competitive in the global economy and strengthens its cybersecurity.

We’ll set aside (for the moment) Obama’s more recent call to weaken that cybersecurity that he’s such a fan of. In the larger perspective, Obama is correct: we need to provide more opportunities for students to learn Computer Science.

I think he gets this just right. This statement doesn’t say students must take CS classes. This is not necessarily a requirement. But the vast majority of students probably should take one or two CS classes, and certainly everybody should have the opportunity to take CS classes.

When people ask me about it now—the Vision question—this is part of my thinking:

I don’t think every student should be required to take Computer Science. But every student should take Computer Science.

They should recognize that computers, technology, the internet, social networks, online advertising, and cybersecurity have an enormous influence on how they live their daily lives.

It’s certainly possible for a student to educate themselves, but we shouldn’t expect them to take that on alone any more than we expect students to teach themselves calculus or how to write a research paper. Schools offer instruction in these areas because well-educated citizens need to know about these things, or at least need to have been exposed to them in a structured setting.

What do you think? Should schools require students to take a CS course, or should they just offer the curriculum and see who shows up?

Networking, and Staying Social

Networking, and Staying Social

by Richard White

2016-03-01

I’m fortunate to work at a school where the faculty are very collegial. Even where there is occasional departmental or teacher-teacher friction, we tend, by and large, to get along. You might chalk it up to our “Welcome Back” and end-of-year dinner parties… or maybe it’s the post-faculty meeting margaritas that they serve us occasionally. Whatever the reason, I see a lot of personal and professional cross-pollination going on.

This kind of networking requires both time and an individual willingness to be open: to people, experiences, and possibilities. I often find myself locked up with lessons to create, labs and projects I want to design, and always, always, a pile of papers to grade. Finding the space for interactions with others necessarily means setting some of my work aside, at least for a little while.

This past August, for example, I should have been deep into prepping for the coming school year, but two of my English department colleagues had put together a weekend workshop on Transformative Teaching and Learning, to be offered at an open workspace in downtown Los Angeles. It was a great weekend with a diverse group of teachers, and if none of what we did was completely germane to my own subject area, I had the opportunity to reflect on other aspects of my teaching.

Oh, and did I mention the fact that I got to network with some of my colleagues in a stress-free environment? :)

One of my favorite things about networking—in addition to the inherent pleasure of socializing—is the fact that unexpected opportunities often arise as a result. A few months into the school year, one of the English teachers with whom I’d connected at the summer workshop approached me. “Hey, I’ve been asked by the school to write an article about language, and I wanted to talk to you about that.”

Insert confused looks here from the Physics/Computer Science teacher.

Language?” he said. “As in computer languages?” You’re a Computer Science guy, and I want to talk about language from a very global perspective!”

Huh. I’d never thought of that.

Next thing you know, I’m minding his infant daughter at a nearby pub while he grabs a couple of beers for us, and before long we’ve launched into a conversation on the role of language in various contexts.

And a month or two later, I found myself mentioned in his feature article in the school’s semi-annual publication:

Lighting up about language: Authoring across the curriculum

by Nathan Stogdill, in the Oak Tree Times, Fall-Winter, 2015

… Richard White sees a similar form of authorship in his AP Computer Science classes, where students create their own programs through syntax and conventions of coding languages. Like seventh-graders writing haiku or ninth grade math students telling the story of their solutions, his students have an outcome in mind and must work within the constraints of a specific language or instruction set to achieve that outcome. But there is creativity within those constraints, and the outcome is not assumed. Sometimes when the program is run, it does the unexpected. These surprises are exciting moments for White and his students: Like authors discovering new meanings through the process of writing, they find that they have created new things that they never intended, and they are able to learn from them.

Nathan makes me sound a lot smarter than I am, but I never turn down free publicity…!

Teachers tend to get pretty busy, and it’s easy to find one’s self spending a lot of time alone, frantically trying to keep up with our obligations. We take our jobs seriously, and we have high expectations, of our students and ourselves.

I believe that taking a little time off, however, benefits us in important and unexpected ways. Take a moment today or tomorrow to put your grading down, get out of your classroom or office, and stop in for a chat with someone. Go visit someone’s classroom for a few minutes. Check in with one of your admins.

You never know what might happen as a result!

140 Characters Is Not Enough

140 Characters Is Not Enough

2016-02-28

by Richard White

I’ll confess right here, I’ve only really ever been a lurker on Twitter. I’ve got a couple of accounts there, and I follow a few people, and appreciate the spontaneous ebb-and-flow of some conversations, memes, tropes, movements, and revolutions.

I’ve also watched in horror as a hashtag “blows up” while the Internet—bored, and starving for something, anything to frenzy-feed on—zeroes in on a statement taken out of context, an offhand comment that unknowingly became co-opted as a sound-bite for someone else’s rant or cause célèbre.

I love the Internet and its nearly perfect ability to act as a vehicle for a truly democratic and representative communication tool… and Twitter has come to embody the very best and worst of that communication.

At least part of the problem has to do with the simple fact that 140 characters, the limit on the length of a Tweet, is just enough to present a statement, and not nearly enough to provide context, support, or any significant development of that idea.

Taking things out of context isn’t a problem unique to Twitter, of course, but the 140-character limit of the medium practically demands it.

A quick, easy example: It’s not uncommon to hear a teacher at my school say of their students, “I love my students.” I have said, in chiding my students for a momentary lack of attention, said something along the lines of, “I love you guys, and I want good things for you. Let’s get back to work, shall we?” Is it a surprise to hear that teachers love their students? Of course not. Is that something that could be taken out of context on Twitter?

Ummmmm, yeah. Of course it can.

Another example of risk, as quoted by Audrey Watters in her op-ed piece Is Twitter the Best Online Source of Professional Development?:

Steven Salaita, for example, had his tenure-track position at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign rescinded after the university disproved of his tweets in support of Palestinians.

As Bonnie Stewart argues, “The threat of being summarily acted upon by the academy as a consequence of tweets – always present, frankly, particularly for untenured and more vulnerable members of the academic community – now hangs visibly over all heads…even while the medium is still scorned as scholarship by many.” While there are efforts to encourage educators and students to participate in the public sphere, via tools like Twitter, it’s clear that there are also risks in doing so, particularly if what’s being said fails to conform to certain “community standards” or certain notions of “civility.”

I have actually used Twitter on occasion, including several sessions acting as a “Twitter correspondent,” and have had a couple of my tweets removed by the person who was responsible for making sure those messages were in keeping with the guidelines of the organization. It was an interesting experience, to see my work edited in such a fashion, and it was a great reminder (if one was needed) that others read tweets and interpret them as they will. (For the record, I didn’t find anything offensive in those tweets, but it wasn’t my account I was tweeting under, so I accept the edits.)

But my takeaway from that experience and the experiences of others (see How One Stupid Tweet Ruined Justine Sacco’s Life, and Too Many People Have Peed in the Pool for two examples), is simply to not use Twitter. I have a number of other communications tools that I am free to use with friends, family, and co-workers, and I have no need to recruit followers, nor to deliver pithy, entertaining, or even useful comments to the universe.

Some educators may find that tweeting is a rewarding experience, and I absolutely do enjoy reading the tweets of some of my colleagues. For myself, however, I find the personal / professional risk of tweeting to be unacceptably high.

One last warning, courtesy of Catherine Garcia, published on August 25, 2015 at TheWeek.com:

Former MLB pitcher and current ESPN baseball analyst Curt Schilling was reprimanded by the network after posting a questionable meme on Twitter.

On Tuesday morning, he tweeted a meme featuring an image of Adolf Hitler with the words: “It’s said only 5-10% of Muslims are extremists. In 1940, only 7% of Germans were Nazis. How’d that go?” Schilling added his own commentary, the Los Angeles Times reports, writing, “The math is staggering when you get to the true #s.” He deleted the tweet 10 minutes later.

Not long after, ESPN announced he would no longer be covering the Little League World Series. “Curt’s tweet was completely unacceptable, and in no way represents our company’s perspective,” the network said. “We made that point very strongly to Curt and have removed him from his current Little League assignment pending further consideration.” Schilling returned to Twitter to take responsibility, writing, “I understand and accept my suspension. 100% my fault. Bad choices have bad consequences and this was a bad decision in every way on my part.” The lesson here is simple: Don’t use Twitter.

Do you use Twitter? Do you use it in your capacity as an educator? In which direction does the Risk/Reward balance tip for you?

Inspiring Students

INSPIRING STUDENTS

2015-03-07

by Richard White

Earlier in my teaching career I worked at a high school that had a depressingly low rate of its graduates going on to college. It’s the desire of every teacher to encourage students to continue their learning, and while that doesn’t necessarily mean college for everyone, for most people it should. Encouraging my students to apply themselves and to strive for something big was a noble challenge, and an exhausting one.

At my current school, I have the benefit of getting to work with a different population, and one that is almost always appreciative of the advantages that they’ve been afforded in life. In addition to taking full advantage of the opportunities they’ve been given, some of them push even farther, and in so doing, inspire me to be better myself.

apcs_project

A couple of days ago, I received this email out of the blue from a student who’d graduated last year:

Hi Mr. White!

In my CS106A lecture right now, and we’re learning about passwords. Reminded me of that one time you spent physics class telling us to back up our hard drives and how to make passwords :) hope everything’s going well at Poly!

The next thing I did, of course, was search for the website for Stanford’s CS106A course to see how what they were doing compared to what I do in my own CS courses, and three hours later, I’ve got some new ideas to consider for how I run things next year.

It wasn’t this student’s intention to provide me with an opportunity to reflect on what I’m doing—she’d just wanted to say hi, and I appreciated that and responded in kind. But it was the perfect excuse for me to see what my former students are moving on to, and to reflect on how I might better prepare them for what awaits after they leave my care.

Another example: a current student has been working with me for a couple of years now, and after enrolling in his second computer science course in as many years, he approached me about the possibility of helping him with an idea he had for a Python program that would:

  1. allow him to enter the title of a song
  2. search YouTube for a recording of that song
  3. automatically download that song to his computer

There is certainly the possibility of making something like this happen, but it’s a bit beyond his (and my) skill set at this point. I couldn’t help him with this particular project… but I could prepare a couple of smaller programs that might provide some first steps along that path. I spent an hour or so setting up a Python program that would automatically send an email to someone from his Gmail account, and another one that checks a NOAA webpage to identify the current temperature, and then reports that temperature back to whomever is running the program.

These are relatively small programs, but for a new programmer, they’re the first step in writing code that interacts with the world outside his/her own machine. And thanks to this student’s request, I’m considering including a small project on this very thing as part of my own Introductory Computer Science course.

Teaching at my current school is a refreshing change from the days when I had to lead my students through classes that they had difficulty appreciating. Now, it’s often my own students, current and former, leading me in my ongoing goal of becoming a better teacher.

I’m lucky to be able to work with these young men and women.

The Best and the Worst of Online Learning

THE BEST AND THE WORST OF ONLINE LEARNING

by Richard White

2014-12-25

mooc_reviews

A few months ago I signed up to take my fourth Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). We’ve discussed MOOCs here before, but it’s been awhile since I’d taken one, so perhaps it’s time for an update.

My track record with regard to these MOOCs is better than that of most people. The first one I took, a Python-based course on Building a Search Engine offered by Udacity, was far and away the best one I took. The whole MOOC craze hadn’t really started yet, and so it was clear that the instructors wanted to get this right, and that fact showed in the time and care they took in developing both the curriculum and the materials used to support the course. I followed the course, completed assignments as required, and earned a “certificate of completion” at the end of it all. Based on my experiences with that single course, I became a true believer in the concept of MOOCs.

I signed up for a couple of other classes over the course of the next couple of years, but didn’t complete either one. Udacity’s follow-up CS212 course, Programming Principles, taught by Peter Norvig, was poorly organized and poorly delivered, a disappointment all the more striking on the heels of the first course. Based on comments left on the course Discussion Board, students abandoned the course in droves. (Here’s an online review from a student as well.) I left my own comments on the Udacity Discussion Board:

…One of the important tenets of education is the idea of giving as student a problem that is just beyond their current level of understanding, along with the tools he or she needs to make that next step. In CS212, in the first unit, just about every quiz solution reveals a strategy or technique that had never been broached in the discussion to that point.

Yes, I understand that “the real world” requires one to do independent research as required. This is not “the real world”–this is an educational course that is intended to guide me in discovering the tools that I can use to solve problems. CS212, in that regard, has been a bit of a disappointment.

The third course I took was again offered by Udacity, this time a Java-based Intro to Programming course that I quite liked. It had the benefit of being taught by the author of the textbook I use for the AP Computer Science course I teach, and it was entertaining for me to hear his audio- and video-recorded development of topics that I would be teaching myself. I didn’t complete this course because I got busy prepping for school, and that seems to be a common malady when it comes to MOOCs. Without the structure offered by a regularly-timed class, there is an enormous attrition rate.

Just a few days ago, I completed the second of the four MOOCs I’ve taken, this one an Introduction to Linux offered by edX. I finished the course–a PDF certifying that fact is being readied as we speak!–but I can’t say it was a pleasant experience.

Here’s the thing. Learning is hard, and teaching is even harder. You’ve got to help students develop a coherent picture of the content and process that you’re presenting, typically with explanatory comments to help them understand why something is the way it is.

Here’s the type of video I got in this most recent course.

This is not teaching.

I survived the course only because a) I already knew most of the material in it, and b) the “final exam” consisted of 30 Multiple Choice questions, open notes and open coursework, with two tries allowed for each question and a pass-fail cutoff at 70%.

MOOCs aren’t going to go away. With a lot of planning and forethought, it’s possible to do them well. It’s also extraordinarily easy to mess this up, and it’s going to take some time for things to settle out. There are lots of challenges to be solved. How to reliably deliver good content? How to accurately gauge students’ progress? How to certify completion/mastery?

We’e seen some interesting forays into this new area of learning, and we’ve seen the ensuing land-grab by various corporations and higher-ed institutions, and the backlash that resulted from trying too much, too soon. We’ll see within a few years what we’ve decided to make of all this.

In the meantime, feel free to try out a MOOC and see how it feels. If at all possible, see if you can determine in advance how well a given course works. Coursetalk.com may be one place to start.

Good luck… and I’ll see you online.

Whither Data?: Dude, where’d my content go?

Whither Data?: Dude, where’d my content go?

by Richard White

2014-09-20

Part II in our series.

In a previous post, Whither Media?, we explored the ongoing transition away from physical media, and what implications this transition might have. The related question is Whither Data?: What happens when your content—your written documents, photos, email, music, etc.—are all stored on somebody else’s computer?

The Cloud is a term that has a number of definitions, but typically it refers to a collection of servers run by a company that (usually) offers a user access via Internet to that data and those services. In addition to offering Internet access, a cloud-based service typically implies multiple servers hosting redundant copies of the data, providing faster access to the user and backups of a user’s data.

If you use Google’s Gmail, your email is stored on their servers, “in the cloud.” If you use Google Docs, your documents are stored on servers, “in the cloud.” Microsoft’s Office 365 stores your Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents “in the cloud.” And although you may not think of it this way, many social networking sites such as Facebook also provide content and services “in the cloud” so that your conversations, photos, status announcement, comments, and Likes are store where you and others can view them.

There are a number of powerful advantages to using cloud-based services, and most of these are self-evident, especially to teachers. At my school, which provides Google Apps for Education (GAFE) to teachers and students, we’ve been able to offload our email services to Gmail and provide Google Docs and Calendars to the entire community, allowing for teaching strategies and communication workflows that simply weren’t possible before. Content Management Systems (CMS) and their educational offspring Learning Management Systems (LMS) provide a structure—usually a proprietary one—in which a teachers information can be delivered and a students interactions with that information can be tracked.

I love the fact that the ability to share data from user to user and machine to machine has become easier. Without cloud services, teachers would be forced to a) try manage an endless and non-linear flow of emailed attachments (something some of us still do, I’m sorry to say), or b) implement and manage our own servers to which students can upload documents, and from which they can download them. (Actually, I do do this, but it’s in the context of a computer science course in which those processes are part of the curriculum). Cloud services allow for shared files, shared folders, and drag-and-drop functionality that “just works” (most of the time).

There are two caveats here, however. The first concern is security. Unless students are encrypting their documents before uploading them, there’s the possibility that the information in those documents—perhaps confidential, private information—may be visible to others, either in transit or on those servers. The reality for most teachers, I think, is that the documents that students are sharing with us—book reports, essays, lab reports, homework assignments—don’t require a high degree of security, and so maybe this is just fine. If you were having students email Word documents to you before, having them work on a GoogleDoc on Google’s servers is at least as secure, and almost certainly more unless they’ve elected to make the document’s contents available publicly.

I am not a doctor or lawyer and am not aware of the specific legal requirements concerning the secure storage of patient or client information, but I would investigate that carefully before using cloud services for these purposes.

Perhaps a more significant concern for teachers and students, however, is retaining access to cloud-based content over the long term. Low-priority content like quizzes or in-class essays may not be of much concern to students, but more significant essays, research papers, or portfolio work has a higher value, and may even be submitted to colleges as part of an application. Ideally, a student would be able to retain access to their work—and it is their work, isn’t it?!—for some indeterminate time into the future. Which cloud-based services allow for that?

The notorious offenders here are the providers of online books—where online notes and marginalia disappear when your one-year access license expires—and the various Content Management and Learning Management Systems, with password-protected access that may not extend beyond the current year. Students who create or store documents in these systems are at high risk of losing access to them when the end of the school year comes around, or the next school year starts begins (depending, of course, on the administration of the system).

The same may happen with Google Apps For Education, although it is much easier to export this data onto a student’s own computer or data storage device, assuming he or she has access to something more than a Chromebook. Here, a personal Google account may come in handy, although questions about privacy of these documents may be relevant.

exporting_a_google_doc

I don’t think we’ve yet reached the point where lost access to data is a broad concern, although some are wrestling with this issue already (as mentioned previously here. 34:20 in show). As we ask that are students create more and more of their work in a digital form, however, it’s fair that we keep these questions in mind: ‘Should students have access to the data that they’re submitting to me?’ and ‘How do I go about facilitating that access?’